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The Color of Debt: An Examination of Social Networks, Sanctions, and Child Support Enforcement Policy

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This article is based on face-to-face interviews with 20 randomly selected fathers of black and white children receiving temporary assistance for needy families benefits, followed, when possible, by an interview with the mother of one of the father’s children in Dane County, Wisconsin. The primary purpose of this research was to explore the sample’s level of knowledge about child support enforcement program policy. The informants shared information on their knowledge of child support enforcement program policy and procedures, but also their access or lack of access to social networks for employment to pay their child support order, and experiences with various imposed sanctions for non-payment of their child support order. The data provided an opportunity to conduct comparisons across and within races on their experiences with the child support enforcement program. Results from an analysis of the qualitative data provided an insight into their “lived” experiences with law enforcement by race when their child support was in arrears. In addition, quantitative data obtained from the Wisconsin kids information data system administrative records highlighted the stark racial differences in fathers’ annual (UI) earnings and debt owed in child support to the state and the mother of their child (ren). Further analysis highlights the limited social networks for referrals to employment among black noncustodial fathers and the accumulated debt of child support for black men, which hampers their ability to maintain a minimal level of economic security.

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  1. Robles et al. (2015, April 19). Skip. Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat. The New York Times. Retrieved from

  2. The amount of reported child support debt in the annual 2006 of OCSE was 105 billion dollars. For more information, go to

  3. The findings, such as in H.R. 3734, Section 101, compiled by members of the House of Representatives and in S.1956, Section 2101, compiled by members of the Senate, form the foundation for PRWORA. One such finding was that the rate of child support collections among nonmarital births was low. Increasing the number of paternity establishments among out-of-wedlock births was seen as a way to boost collections.

  4. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services informed the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) in 2006 that the waiver allowing a full pass-through would be gradually phased out. Without the waiver, Wisconsin families who had received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF benefits would receive only the state share of the child support collection, or approximately 42 % of support collected on their behalf. DWD expected that the phase-out would reduce aggregate child support payments to the state’s low-income families by at least $7 million per year (see, CFFPP National Policy Brief, September 2005—Vol. 7, No. 6.).

  5. The population was drawn from the KIDS Information Data System (KIDS). This database is the state’s automated child support enforcement system. KIDS contains case management data and information about all child support payments received and processed by the counties as a result of a court order.

    The criterion for selection from KIDS as a noncustodial father (NCP) in the qualitative sample was: only males in “Dane County” in terms of the last known address of the father. We did not go by the county location of any KIDS or W-2 case. Last known address of father is from KIDS, and it may be an address last known to be current as far back as June 1998 (that is the earliest one). All NCPs located with Dane County addresses in Dane County Jail, Wisconsin Correctional Facility in Madison, Thompson Correctional Facility in Deerfield, Oakhill Correctional Facility in Oregon, and one in Mendota State Mental Hospital were eliminated. If the father was only in Dane County for this reason, then he is not in the sample. If he had a previous address in Dane County, other than these correctional facilities, then he remained in the sample.

    Supplemental criteria included that the sample member was a father, black or white (non-Hispanic), not deceased, not a good cause exemption case, who had a reported SSN number (for purposes of UI matching), a most current address in Dane County (other than a correctional facility), was an NCP and adjudicated father of at least one child who was also not deceased, who would be a minor child through December 31, 2004, was a paternity child, with a CP who was not deceased, was not in a CSDE survey case, received a W-2 cash grant any time from October, 1997, through November, 2002, and AFTER her entry into W2, received a child support award from the father sometime from January, 1998, through December, 2002, that was still active as of June, 2004 (latest data available). Note: Items NOT considered in the sample selection: current W-2 status of mothers, residence of mothers, child support payments or arrearages. The fathers were randomly selected and placed into two groups. The final breakdown in population size for the recruitment of noncustodial fathers by race was 198 black fathers and 105 white fathers.

  6. For the majority of these fathers, only one mother was eligible to be interviewed for the study.

  7. Federal child support legislation has been amended several times since 1975 to broaden its scope and to increase collections. Despite the enhancement of services to include non welfare child support payments, the focus of the program remained on welfare collections (Kelly 1995). Moreover, under the provision of the Child Support Performance and Incentive Act of 1998 (HR 3130), which were phased in beginning October 1, 1999, a state’s annual incentive payment is based on its paternity establishment, support order, current and arrearage collections, and cost-effectiveness performance levels (Fishman et al. 2000). There was changes to the child support enforcement system with the passing of the Federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (S. 1932) in 2006.

  8. The term “deadbeat dads” generally refers to noncustodial fathers who do not pay child support yet can afford to pay the amount assigned by the court.

  9. Mincy and Sorensen (1998) showed in their research that a lack of income is a significant barrier to child support payments for a substantial minority of young noncustodial fathers. Heightened efforts to collect from nonpaying fathers, if appropriately targeted, may only push more noncustodial fathers into poverty. See also Sorensen and Zibman (2000).

  10. IV-D refers to Title IV, Paragraph D, in the Social Security Act, under which the child support program was created (42 U.S.C. § 651, et al.).

  11. Federal and state law allows the State of Wisconsin to use the enforcement procedures listed here to encourage cooperation with the office of child support enforcement.

    Criminal prosecution for non-payment of child support Any person who intentionally fails for 120 or more consecutive days to provide spousal, grandchild, or child support which the person knows or reasonably should know that the person is legally obligated to provide is guilty of a Class I Felony. Any person who intentionally fails for 120 or fewer consecutive days to provide spousal, grandchild, or child support which the person knows or reasonably should know that the person is legally obligated to provide is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. The child support agency gained the legal authority to do this on July 20, 1985. See Wis.Stat. §984.22 (Year: 2005) (originally enacted as 1997 WIS. ACT 191§75).

    State tax intercept When the Department of Revenue determines that the obligor is entitled to a state tax refund or credit, the state shall notify the obligor that the state intends to reduce any state tax refund or credit due the obligor by the amount the obligor is delinquent. The state tax refund can be applied to past due child support, medical expenses, or birth expenses under the court order. The child support agency gained the legal authority to do this on April 1, 1998. See Wis.Stat. §49.855 (Year: 2005) (originally enacted as 81 WIS.ACT 20 §772).

    Licenses (denial, non-renewal, restriction, and suspension) such as fishing, driving, and professional. The child support agency may initiate license suspension under s. 49.857 Stats., if there is a lien against a payer, and the lien amount in the payer’s case equals or exceeds 300 % of the monthly payment due in the court order or $1000, whichever is greater. The child support gained the legal authority to do this on May 1, 1998. See Wis.Stat. §49.857 (Year: 2005) (originally enacted as 1997 WIS.ACT 191§75).

    Liens against property Liens against property for delinquent support payments. If a person obligated to pay support fails to pay any court-ordered amount of support, that amount becomes a lien in favor of the department upon all property of the person. The child support agency gained legal authority to do this on April 1, 1998. See Wis.Stat. §49.854 (Year: 2005) (originally enacted as 97 WIS. ACT 191 §73).

  12. The Green Book is prepared by the members of the Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives. The book presents background information and statistical data on the major entitlement programs and other activities within the Committee’s authority. Web site address is

  13. In the 2000 Census, the population of Dane County was 426,526. The racial/ethnic breakdown was as follows: non-Hispanic white 89 %; black 4 %; Asian 3.5 %; and Hispanic 3.4 %. The average earnings per job were $33,222, while the median household income was $49,223. The self-sufficiency wage in Dane County was $14.90 per hour or $30,992/year. 92.2 % of Dane County residents, 25 years of age or higher have graduated high school. Of those 16 or older, 75 % (256,180) were in the labor force. Single women headed 9 % of the households in Dane County. Most low-income workers, however, earned between $7.00 and $8.00 per hour, or $15,600 per year. 9.4 % of Dane County residents were living below poverty (Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Agricultural Statistics Service, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, and Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program FY 05 Plan for Dane County,

  14. See Pate, 2002 for an explanation of the recruitment procedures used.

  15. The response rates for the sample were: for the overall sample of fathers mailed letters, 24 of 161 responded (15 %); for the white fathers mailed letters, 15 of 83 responded (18 %); for the black fathers mailed letters, 9 of 78 responded (11 %); and for the mothers, 17 of 21 responded (80 %) Data were collected primarily in the cities of Madison, DeForest, Sun Prairie, Deerfield, Oregon, McFarland, and Stoughton.

  16. We did have permission from the university’s Human Subjects Committee to interview men in prison. However, no interviews with prisoners were conducted.

  17. The stipend was in the form of cash to prevent any additional cost to the informant. It should be noted that for some of the men and women the barriers to cooperate with interviewing were unrelated to financial costs; for these men and women, the level of the stipend was irrelevant to their decision to participate.

  18. A professional transcription firm approved by the university was hired by the Institute for Research on Poverty. Those doing the transcribing were required to sign a confidentiality form which was archived by an IRP staff member.

  19. Content analysis is a technique for systematically analyzing the features of speech or documents. The researcher establishes categories of theoretical interest and systematically codes the transcript data for instances where the topic or category arises. While some content analysis simply counts instances of occurrence, this research performed an “interpretive content analysis” (see Reinharz 1992:155) which examined what research subjects said about particular topics (such as paternal responsibility). It investigated the themes elaborated, claims made, attitudes expressed, and critiques voiced within the transcripts.

  20. A personal narrative is not meant to be read as an exact record of what happened nor is it a mirror of a world “out there.” Narrative analysis allows for systematic study of personal experience and meaning: how events have been constructed by active subjects (Reissman 1993).

  21. Table 3 consists of the available pool of women by default because the men interviewed are the mothers of their children. Most of the interviewed fathers had only fathered a child with one mother at the time of sample construction. The full sample of women was 381; however, only the 20 women described in Table 3 were eligible to be interviewed. The rationale for the study was to conduct research with matched pairs, and 13 women were recruited.

  22. Collins and Mayer (2005) reported a high incidence of domestic violence among their sample of W-2 mothers. In my sample, seven of the thirteen or 54 % of the mothers interviewed reported incidences of intimate partner violence.

  23. One of the fathers had married the mother of their child and so had no active child support order.

  24. Analysis by time and location is necessary because this sample has been experiencing the effects of the new welfare policy regime for more years than the sample interviewed in Milwaukee in 1999 (see Pate 2002).

  25. Pro se means “going through litigation without an attorney.”

  26. Many of the fathers did not know about the fee waiver process for the filing and service fees. Forms and copies still require a fee, unless specially noted on the fee waiver from, choose “Court Forms” for information on the process for conducting a pro se motion.

  27. On November 8, 2005, I requested from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, the number of civil incarcerations for failure to pay child support. I received the following information. There were 715 listings in 2003 and 1148 listings from January 1, 2004, to August 31, 2005. These numbers represent the number of entries listed for failure to pay child support. A person may have been charged with more than one count; therefore, the actual number of persons incarcerated may be less than the numbers listed.

  28. See Pearson (2004) for an article on assessing the effects of incarceration on support obligations.

  29. At the time of the study, African American unemployment was 16.4 percent, a rate four times higher than the white unemployment rate in the state. Wisconsin blacks are four times more likely to be unemployed than the state’s whites, in the region. For a complete report, go to (Dresser and Rogers 2004). Updated current unemployment among African Americans is 19.9 percent in Wisconsin or 4.6 times higher than whites in the state. This unemployment rate is the highest in the nation (2015).

  30. Cash was not accepted as payment in the child support office unless it was a purge payment. A purge payment is a set dollar amount that would be acceptable to clear your debt. Purge payments are usually accepted by the child support enforcement office when the noncustodial parent has been arrested/jailed for non-payment of child support.

  31. The noncustodial parents who had spent time in jail in Dane County said that 41 days was the most common number of days that you were sentenced.

  32. See Holzer et al. (2005) for a discussion on the interaction of incarceration and child support on employment opportunities.

  33. On November 17, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (42 CFR Part 433) and the Administration for Children and Families (45 CFR Parts 301, 302, 303, et al.) was released for public comments the NPRM: Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement Programs; Proposed Rules. At the time of this publication, proposed changes to the child support enforcement program had not been approved (January 27, 2016). Some of the suggested changes to the child support enforcement program mirror the proposed recommendations in this manuscript.

  34. Many of the men defined “good” in reference to jobs as making at least $10 an hour.

  35. See Nepomnyaschy and Garfinkel (2010).

  36. E-mail Communication with Vicki Turetsky, Commissioner for the federal office of Child Support Enforcement (12/06/2015).


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This paper draws from a report to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development under a contract with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Additional financial support was provided by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Helen Bader School of Social Welfare-Spaights Endowment and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health, Community Academic Partnership Fund. Any views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the sponsoring institutions. The author thanks Maria Cancian, Jane Collins, Daniel Meyer, and Elizabeth Evanson for editing and advice on the original report and Deborah Johnson, Matthew Turner, Gregory Williams, and Jacquelyn Boggess for their helpful comments and assistance on the journal submission.

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Correspondence to David J. Pate Jr..


Appendix 1

See Tables 4 and 5.

Appendix 2

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Pate, D.J. The Color of Debt: An Examination of Social Networks, Sanctions, and Child Support Enforcement Policy. Race Soc Probl 8, 116–135 (2016).

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